Fiction Writing and Other Oddities

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Flying off in Weird Directions

Man, last week's post was weird and this week's post is even weirder. It's basically what I learned from cats, dogs and other animals. Because it relates to writing, or maybe it shows how truly twisted I really am.

I got the idea because I was sitting at my computer when my dog snarled. He caught sight of one of the cats who had crept up, wanting to jump into my lap. The dog, although not sitting my lap (because he's *way* too big) objected to the cat doing so.

However, the cat, being the unfazed male that he is, jumped up anyway. On the same theory, one supposes, as those little guys you see in bars who always seem to get drunk, get in a fight, and get the holy heck beaten out of them.

Because you see, after I thought about this incident, I figured out why it seems like woman often have cats for pets and men often have dogs. Because cats exhibit many of the same traits as men and dogs exhibit many of the same traits as women.

And a lot of men like women; and a lot of women like men.

So--back to the guy in the bar.
That guy--he's sort of like my orange cat, Psycho, who completely ignored the dog's growl and did what he wanted to do, anyway. But then, that's why we called him Psycho--he has no sense of self preservation--or any sense, for that matter.

So here are a few generalities. Like any good generalities, exceptions prove the rules.

How Are Cats Like Men?
  • They are frequently aloof and patronizing. They show few emotions and often prefer just to be left alone to sit in their chair at night, watching tv and drinking a beer
  • They rarely come when called (just where *is* your husband, anyway, when you try to call him for dinner?)
  • They're independent and do what they want, when they want to do it (Honey, can you fix the back door? I'll get to it, dear...)
  • They moan and whine for food but when you've got dinner ready on the table, it's not exactly what they want and they just pick at it
  • They want affection when they want affection and it's basically a rub here, a rub there, and then they're gone
  • They're up all night wandering around and howling while they expect you to be right there at home when they manage to drag their sorry behinds back to the house
  • No matter what they look like, they think they're the best looking thing in existance and everyone really wants them
  • They occassionally bring home the odd present, thinking it makes everything okay and proves they're wonderful, big, strong providers

How Are Dogs Like Women?

  • They're always happy to get any attention at all
  • They want to be with you
  • They greet you at the door when you get home from work and they're eager to go out (particularly out for dinner!)
  • They love rides in the car
  • They'll eat anything
  • They're affectionate
  • They come when called
  • They'll do their best to get you out of a jamb or protect you from the big bad police that just arrested you for drunk & disorderly
  • If they get something nice, they'll bury it to save it for the future
  • They can be very chatty
  • They're eager to please and sociable. They're often the peacemaker in the family and are often the ones who find and attract new friends when you go out to places like the park
  • They like to run around in pairs or packs, particularly when going to the bathroom
  • The longer you rub them, the more they like it

Now that you realize how totally true this is, you can use it to your advantage in your writing, the next time you're trying to develop a character.

I mean, when I need to write about some cool hero, I'll just use Psycho, our little orange cat, as the model. We never wanted Psycho. We didn't go out looking for a cat. We just heard a lot of barking one day and found this little orange nutjob--er--male cat sitting in our dog wood tree, observing the dogs going insane because this cat had had the nerve to walk into the yard with 3 strange dogs and eat their food. And then, he had the balls to blithely come down out of the tree and glom on to us humans, not showing the least concern that the dogs totally hated his guts. He could not have cared less. Sort of like that little guy in the bar who is always getting beaten up and can't figure out why.

And this darn Psycho refuses to leave.

He also refuses to listen to anything anyone says or does. If he wants to sit in a lap, he sits in a lap and doesn't care if that lap is busy at the time or if other animals in the vicinity wanted to sit in the lap or are mad that he is sitting in the lap.

He's also toothless, has a split-scared lower lip, and has the worst breath on the planet. His tongue hangs out of his mouth like some kind of drooling, inbred, Deliverance cat. He's ugly, too, no way around that one. But does he realize it? No. He thinks he's the best looking cat around.

Sound familiar? Like that pot-bellied, 60 year old guy with a bad toupee riding around in a red ragtop thinking all the 20 year old babes are just dying to go for a ride with him? Oh, yeah, baby. Psycho.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Circadian Rhythms

You know, I'm not a touchy-feely, New-Age kind of person, but there is one thing I firmly believe: you have to listen to your gut. Sadly, by the time a kid learns to talk, s/he has generally started to learn not to listen for whatever reason. We're taught to ignore our cravings and our feelings. Too bad.

How Not to Get Fat
Eat what your body wants. That's right, just eat when you're hungry and stop when you're full. Eat what your body wants. If you ignore your cravings, you will end up eating more of what your body doesn't want because you keep trying to assuage that craving, but it won't work.

When I was a kid, whenever I started feeling a little sniffly, I had sudden, almost overwhelming craving for grapefruit (I know--the image of a 4 year old kid wanting grapefruit is weird, but true). Who knew that years later, doctors would discover that vitamin C is good for colds and that my craving for citrus fruit probably prevented most of the colds I "almost got."

For years I was also thin, until I "learned" to ignore cravings and eat what I was supposed to eat, when I was supposed to eat it. Mistake. Now I'm trying to unlearn bad habits and go back to eating what I want (really want) when I want it. If I want to just eat yogurt, then why shouldn't I just eat yogurt? If I want a steak, why shouldn't I eat a steak, particularly when I'm feeling run-down (well, duh, iron!)?

If you just listen to what your body wants instead of listening to what your head says you want, we might see less obesity. Or not. Let's not forget that you also have to exercise. The human body was not built for sitting around all day long.

How to Maximize Your Writing
Naturally, this ends up coming back to writing, although this advice will actually be true of any endeavor you wish to pursue. Write when you want to write. Pursue your activities when you want to pursue them.

Now, I'm not saying to just be a lazy bum and never write, or skip work to go fishing. We all have to earn a living.

However, I am suggesting that you look at the rhythms of your life. Is there a time when you are burning to write? Certain seasons of the year or times of the day? Then work out a way to write as much as you can during that period. During "off times," switch over to other writing-related activites. When you are in the writing doldrums, do your editing, judge writing contests, send out queries, plan out future novels, whatever.

For a long time, I struggled against the flow but after a couple of years, I've realized: I have a sudden surge of energy and desire to write in the fall. I can write perhaps two or maybe even three rough drafts during the fall. Then, as the weather turns warm in the spring, I struggle to write even a sentence. That is when I switch over to editing what I wrote in the fall, or even, the previous fall. I judge writing contests during the summer, as well, and attend writers' workshops. I take care of the business side of things.

True, I can do this because I'm still awaiting my first publishing contract from Cerridwen Press (my agent is reviewing it right now) and I don't have anyone breathing down my neck to meet deadlines, but here's the thing: I know my rhythm. So, I can write ahead. During the fall and winter, I can frantically write as many manuscripts as possible, knowing that I will then have something to edit and submit when requested. I can build up my "stock" of manuscripts. By doing that, I'm hoping to stay ahead of the game so that I can work in harmony with my cycles.

Ultimately, it is less stressful and more productive. I don't feel like I'm struggling for each word.

This takes some thought and trial-and-error to figure out. You have to relearn things that you may have repressed for years, but if it helps you, perhaps it is worth it.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Creating Sympathetic Characters

The ability to create sympathetic characters is a real talent, and one which I'm afraid I'm not so good at. Maybe because what other people consider sympathetic, I consider pathetic and manipulative. Unfortunately, it is the heroine and hero of your book who will ultimately sell it for you, and that is the difficulty.

Because I tend to ramble and know I will ramble, I'll let you in on another secret, right up front. In addition to the fact that selling your book depends upon how well you bring your characters to life (and not on the plot--believe it or not--unless your plot is something like the DaVinci Code), here is another consideration: the reader doesn't necessarily have to like your characters as long as they understand them.

The key is giving your readers enough of a glimpse inside the head of your characters to make them sink into the character, whether they ultimately like them or not.

I've been accused many times of creating unsympathetic characters and after careful analysis, I've realized that that phrase is not really what everyone means. What editors, agents and critique partners mean when they complain about unsympathetic characters is that you have not provided them with enough information to understand the character's emotional state and situation. They can't bond with the characters.

You can have a character who is really, really a terrible person, but you can get away with it as long as:
  • You reveal the character's motivation
  • The character's actions or dialogue are consistent with their personality
  • The character's situation is portrayed well enough for readers to understand why the character is reacting in the way you describe

Within the first chapter of your book, and preferably within the first paragraph, you need to tell your readers who your main character is, what their immediate situation is, what their desires are, and what is stopping them from attaining their desired goal. Sure, that's a lot, but without it, you are risking manuscript rejections adorned with the phrase, "ultimately, I did not sympathize with your characters."

When I first got a rejection with the phrase "I did not sympathize with your characters" I was completely stunned. I ran to my local writing group and asked for help. They suggested showing the "good side" of the character by giving them a pet cat or some such thing. Have them caring for younger siblings or an ancient grandmother. Have the heroine be a victim of child abuse in her youth (apparently a much-loved tactic that Dean Koontz uses frequently).

Not a good suggestion.

This was terribly misguided advice on a number of levels, but unfortunately, I think others have gotten this advice because I see similarly manipulative "add-ons" in other stories. When you do something like this, instead of creating a sympathetic character, your reader just feels, well, manipulated. Lately, if I read a book where the heroine is just a drip and she's forced into a stupid situation with the hero because she's trying to take care of dear old grandma and 3 younger siblings, or she has some kind of a pet which doesn't really have any function in the story, then I feel like the author is just trying to manipulate my emotions and s/he thought I was stupid enough to fall for it.

Me--I ain't that stupid.

This method creates what I call false sympathy. It doesn't actually cause the reader to become one with the character, it just makes them feel sort of sorry for the character.

Our goal is to make the reader become one with the character. We need this, because in the course of our story, our character may say or do things which are not unsympathetic, because we all do things that show our flaws. It makes us, and our characters, human. So we can't just make our hero and heroine into "all things good and sweet" unless you want them all to be drips. We need them to do the occassional stupid/bad/not-politically-correct/flawed thing, but while they are doing it, we want the reader to submerge into the character because they understand the hero/heroine and understand why the character is acting in such a way.

You cannot accomplish this by blatant manipulation.

You can only accomplish this by letting the reader into the character's head. I have a very good friend, Charlotte Featherstone, who has totally mastered this. At the beginning of her novels, her characters are really, really flawed. I mean, they have terrible problems, including things like substance abuse which is normally something I would never sympathcize with. And yet, I love her characters, I feel so close to them and understand completely what is driving them.

She accomplishes this by sinking deeply into the heads of the hero and heroine within the first page or pages, explaining their situation, their goals, and exactly how they feel about it. She lets us into their feelings, all their frustrations, fears, hopes and dreams. Once you understand what drives them emotionally, it becomes impossible not to want to know what happens to them and how they find their heart's desire.

That's the secret. Not a pet cat or orphaned sister.

For me, because I tend to write mysteries and love characters who are more cerebral, it has been very difficult for me to portray these deep feelings, because the characters are actively trying to suppress them. I also tend to like and write characters who are not politically correct and who like to say things that could get misinterpreted. That's where it is even more important to give your reader the information they need to understand the character's situation and feelings. Particularly what is driving them.

One flaw I feel victim to when writing mysteries, is the notion that I wanted to hold back information about the characters situations and feelings to let them be gradually revealed and surprise the reader. The surprise was that the reader never got far enough into the book to care if I revealed the hero's motivation and background on page 87.

You can't do a background dump on page one, but you have to establish who the characters are, what they are feeling and why they are feeling it. If there is some tragedy in their past, you have to describe it in some form or fashion that will form a plausible basis for how the character is acting now. You don't have to reveal everything, but you do have to reveal enough to establish the situation.

Back to unsympathetic characters and not revealing enough about their emotional state.

I had one character, John Archer, who would say things to his grown nieces such as, "Don't be absurd, you silly child." This was meant in a gently mocking, teasing, kidding sort of way. In fact, a lot of my own relatives say things like that to each other (and worse) and it gives me warm fuzzies when they do. It makes me laugh. I love it when people do that mock insulting thing, because it means they are comfortable enough with you to know: you can take it, you can dish it out, and you aren't going to burst into tears. Let's face it, you're only completely polite to people you hate. So, I know they aren't really mad and don't really think I'm either immature, absurd, or silly--or maybe I have actually done or said something that is, but I know they are just teasing me about it. If they were seriously angry with me or trying to really ridicule me, the entire tone would change, and so would the wording.

Sidebar: I guess it's not politically correct to tease anyone any more, which makes me very sad. I keep having this pointed out to me as a terrible flaw in me and my characters. :-(

Anyway, tone is really hard to write. So although I wrote John saying that phrase, almost all the people who read it thought he was this terribly mean person and why would he suddenly say such a terrible thing to his niece to whom he has previously been so nice. They totally did NOT get this. So you either have to hit the reader over the head with it by saying something such as:

"Don't be absurd, you silly child," John said in a teasing voice.

Or risk having 90% of your readers sit back, aghast, at how your previously nice character suddenly turned mean to his nieces. The key is to let your reader know how the character means it. One would hope you would not have to hit them over the head with a sledgehammer to make them understand, but perhaps you do. Perhaps I think readers are smarter than that and perhaps they are not.

Still, I'd like to think a few out there get it and aren't insulted by it when they do get it.


So think about it when you write your characters. Don't make them perfect, just make them understandable.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Judging Writing Contests

This topic is near and dear to my heart for a number of reasons. Good or bad, writing contests are opportunities for both the writers who submit contest entries and those who judge. Of course, one must never judge a contest category one has entered--at least if both activities occur within the same contest, but this goes without saying.

Anyway, I'm a contest slut. That's right, I'll go with any contest who'll have me, although my sluttiness is about to be cut short if-and-when I finally get my contract from Cerridwen Press. But I'm actually entering contests right up until the time I sign that contract. And I'm judging contests, other contests (not the ones I'm entering).

Why Judge a Writing Contest?
Because you will learn more about what works and what doesn't work by judging other writers' work, than you ever will just staring at your own work (or work already published). We can never recognize our own faults, but it is sure easy to recognize other folks' faults. And once you realize what doesn't work elsewhere, you have to go back and be brutally honest with your own writing and see if you are doing the same thing.

Caveat: If you feel your writing is so good that you just don't have any of the flaws you see in other people's writing, then don't even bother to be a judge. You won't be a good judge and you won't benefit from judging. Good judges always learn from the experience, just like good teachers learn as much from their students as their students learn from them. The very act of teaching forces you to learn just like the very act of judging forces you to learn. Take advantage of it.

Here are the steps to getting the most out of judging and coincidentally being a good judge.

  • You can't take points off if you cannot articulate what the problem is. Nope, sorry, I don't care if the story was the worst thing you've ever read in your life. You can't take points off if you can't say why it was the worst thing you ever read. And I mean specifics. Is the character flat? Why? Not enough description? Too much description? Did the dialog not go with the character as described? What was wrong? This will help you, as a writer, identify problems well enough to be able to find and correct them in your own work, and it will help the contest entry writer to fix what is wrong. They paid good money for the contest in the hopes they could fast track to some editor or agent who is judging the contest finalists, but if they don't get to the final round, they deserve to know exactly why.
  • Give them a solution to the problem(s). You can, of course, offer nothing but criticism, but you are shortchanging both the writer and yourself. While it is highly doubtful that the writer will implement any solution you recommend, it may spark an "A-HA!" moment for them, or at the very least serve as a starting gun to get them moving. For you as a judge, this is an opportunity for you to think of ways to fix a flaw. Sooner or later, you're going to be on the receiving end of a revision letter, so the more your flex your revision muscles, the stronger they will be when you have to row the same leaky boat. It may also help to make your criticism seem less negative and harsh, and more inspirational. Well, maybe not - I don't know of any criticisms that don't seem negative and harsh, but at least you will have tried and the writer will know you have tried.
  • You'll realize why editors and agents only have to read the first few lines. This isn't really so helpful for the recipient of your criticism, but after judging a few contests, you will begin to realize why agents and editors can tell so quickly if a specific manuscript is going to be worth their time or not. I know this sounds discouraging, but it is so true. It is also a mostly qualitative property that is excrutiatingly hard to identify. Mostly, I think of it in terms of writing maturity. Works that are published, and manuscripts which are publishable seem...mature. The writing is more polished, the characters seem more real, the descriptions mesh well with the story and the dialogue is true. It's smooth. You actually have a hard time pulling yourself far enough out of the story to actually DO any criticism. Each time you read a word, a phrase, a sentence, you sink back into the characters and situation and become unaware of the writing. Unfortunately, 90% of what you see in contests just isn't mature. It doesn't pull you into the story. You are always aware of the writing as opposed to sinking into the story. The characters seem silly and childish, like plastic Barbie and Ken dolls, and the writing constantly jars you out of the story. The hard part is, once you begin to recognize this, you get really, really paranoid about your own work and your ability to write smoothly and NOT lose your reader at the first sentence. There's nothing I can do about paranoia, I'm afraid.
  • Don't take off points for problems with facts. Point them out to the writer, but be aware that you may be the one who is wrong--not the writer. Or you may both be wrong. Most writers do at least some research. If you think the facts are wrong, just make note of it on the entry and indicate you think it is wrong, and leave it at that. Most contests do not even give points for factual exactitude--this is fiction, after all, so for God's sake, don't take off points in some random place just because it makes you feel vindicated. Some historical categories do have maybe one judging area for historical accuracy, and this is where you can, maybe take off 1 or 2 points, but as I said, you'd better be absolutely, positively sure. I've seen judges indicate that the War of 1812 never happened and that the writer shouldn't "make up wars like this". I've had judges tell me Apollo was the Greek Sun God, when in actual fact it was Helios (and Apollo just got mixed up with Helios later). So like I said, you might indicate you think something is wrong, but I, personally, wouldn't take off points unless it is something like a story taking place in 1804 and the characters are constantly saying things like: "Okay, dude, catch you later!" or "Can you just fast-forward that and get to the relevant point?"

That's it for being a judge. I'd say to be nice about your criticism, but I'm assuming you're making an honest attempt to be a good judge and not just make snide remarks at the expense of the writer because it makes you feel good to show how much smarter you are and how irritated you are with stupid writers.

Why Enter A Writing Contest?

After reading the above, you are probably thinking contests are just way too hard on the ego and way too subjective to enter. Except they are learning opportunities. Or publishing opportunities.

  • You may actually have a publishable entry. Yes, it does happen. In every category of a contest, SOMEONE (usually three someones) has an entry that finals. And some agent or editor will read it. And often, that agent or editor will request the full manuscript! I would note, however, that more often than not, requests for fulls seem to come from editors at the huge conglomerate known as Harlequin. Just a note.
  • You may need help. Wouldn't you rather find out about your flaws BEFORE it goes to an agent or editor and gets rejected? Sometimes, even with critique partners, some flaws creep through. I can't tell you how many really stupid mistakes I've made that I didn't see until a judge pointed them out to me. (See the Apollo/Helios item above? Well, that came about because I stupidly put in that Mercury was the Sun God, which was NEVER the case but I had a brain fart and it slipped by BOTH me and my critique partner and it took a contest judge to point it out to me. And thank GOD they did before I sent the manuscript to anyone important and looked like a total idiot. Of course, the judge also got it wrong, but we were both wrong in this case.) I've also had cases where I thought it a scene or situation was perfectly reasonable and clear, only to find that anyone else reading it would think something entirely different. That happens to me a lot with characters I think are being funny and others think are just mean. I guess I'm weird.
  • You will become the QUEEN (or KING) of Ruthlessness. If you enter enough contests, you will figure out that your entry must CONFORM. You will discover how to format it properly and make sure your hero and heroine meet within the first couple of chapters, preferrably as early as possible. Maybe even on page 1. You will cut chapters 1-3 just so they DO meet within the first few pages (and you'll find out that, hey, maybe that really is a better place to start). You will learn to create chemistry between your characters. This last point is a sore one with me because I prefer subtle/realistic chemistry, while most romance contests will require a somewhat over-the-top throbbing body parts kind of chemistry, but here's the thing... If your writing is mature enough, then they will forget they like "lurid" and they will think you are doing it beautifully even when it's really subtle. And that is all it takes. You need to be ruthless with your writing if you are ever going to publish. It is what will let you delete that wonderful, but utterly pointless scene/phrase/dialog that needs to be deleted even though you think it is the best piece of writing you have ever done. If it doesn't advance the plot, reveal the character, or otherwise work for the story, it has to go. If you pay attention and go through the rigors of contests, you will learn this (or just not final). It can be a hard and harsh lesson, but if you are determined to publish, this is one way to hone your skills. In fact, I was never very good at editing until I started really "polishing" stuff for contests and I wanted something which in the original draft was 75 pages fit the 50 page entry limit. You'd be amazed at how much crap can creep into your writing. Even good crap is still crap and it has to go. Hone your skills.

So, that is really the long and short of contests.